Is there a culinary term describing "frying in about 4mm of water" in a frying pan without oil (with this technique, if water evaporates you just keep adding more from a glass, keeping it shallow).
I disagree with Neil's answer here. All the three terms of "poaching", "boiling" or "simmering" require that your food is fully submerged, especially for poaching it has to be free-floating in a large amount of water. I doubt that you are submerging anything in 4 mm, and this little amount of water would boil off quickly if you had so little food that it is submerged.
Depending on the exact circumstances and the type of food (veggies vs grains vs meat), but also on the size of the food chunks, what you are doing is either sweating, steaming or braising, but in a very inefficient form.
Sweating would be part of the initial browning of vegetables before further use in a soup or similar, until they are softer. It usually involves some browning, but this won't happen when you are using water. In fact, you're better off leaving the water out altogether in this case and use either fat or nothing.
Steaming can be done with vegetables or grains. It is better done with somewhat more water than you describe, but still much less than needed for boiling them. The "mix food and water in the pan/pot" technique is better suited for grains, vegetables do better in a steamer suspended over a large amount of boiling water, without touching the water.
Braising is normally used for meat, but can also be done with other food which can be cut up in largish chunks (aubergines would do, but not peas, for example). It is tastier when done in a sauce than in water.
Unlike shallow frying, which is done with oil, what you are doing does not have a name of its own, because it is not something usually done when cooking. Depending on what you are trying to do, there are better ways to go about it.
If the veggies are barely submerged, you're effectively steaming. It is not as pure a method as actually raising them slightly above the (I presume very rapidly boiling) water, but if you keep them moving enough, the result is going to be more similar than it would be to be boiling/poaching/simmering.
In case you are unaware, you can get very inexpensive steamer baskets that fit into any size pan. This is a pretty effective way to cook vegetables. It also means you can cover the pan and not have to keep everything moving. If you have layers of veggies in the steamer you may want to rotate them around occasionally.
If you are using a thin layer of oil atop the water, you are water-velveting. If you are beginning with a very small amount of oil, and then adding water to the pan and covering once the oil is mostly absorbed into the dish, you are steam-frying.
If you are using the water alone to keep the ingredients from sticking to the pan, or to release it once stuck, without covering the pan or submerging a substantial part of the ingredients in liquid, there isn't a western culinary term for the technique that's appropriate.
- You are cooking with direct heat, so steaming, poaching or braising isn't appropriate.
- You are using no oils or fats, so neither is grilling, frying, sweating or sauteing.
- You are using heat in direct contact with the ingredients, rather than ambient, so roasting or broiling doesn't work, either.
- Deglazing is generally reserved for sauce building rather than pan-frying, even though that's probably the most appropriate term for what you're doing: using a liquid to release stuck-on food from the pan to keep it from burning.
I would call this steam-to-release if I wanted a single term to describe it. It's not a common technique in European or American cooking, so you could probably christen it whatever you wanted with a compelling enough recipe blog or youtube tutorial."Funkytown Super Style Aqua-Panambulation" has a nice ring to it if steam-to-release isn't working for you.
Poaching, Boiling and Simmering.
Boiling is the method of cooking food in boiling water, or other water-based liquids such as stock or milk. Simmering is gentle boiling, while in poaching the cooking liquid moves but scarcely bubbles.
I have been using this method to cook meat and other things for many years, and I too have asked various places what it is called. The fact is, it is not a common cooking method, so none of the names of "proper" cooking methods fit it exactly. Braising, for example, is "low and slow" while this method is hot and fast. Many other water-based methods require a larger amount of water that is not meant to burn off in a minute or so.
So, having never found a truly accurate answer, I've taken to calling it pan frying with water. I feel that is the most accurate description of what you are doing. It's a great way to cook pork chops, steaks, and more. The water soaks into the cooking meat and keeps it very moist. The trick to getting good color on the meat is to allow dry cooking time in between the additions of water. You can also add a little bit (1 tspn) of butter at the end to get some added final browning and to flavor the pan au jus, though that is optional.
I've heard this method with vegetable broth called "stock-velveting" so maybe water velveting? Or just switch to vegetable stock and call it stock velveting. I eat no processed oils (meaning ONLY oil intake is from Whole Foods such as avocados, nuts, and coconuts. I use both of the above methods frequently and sometimes add a few drops of soy sauce at the end of the process to brown my veggies.
It looks like the closest we can get on this is 'water sauté'. But there certainly should be a more elegant term. Why no one has invented one is beyond me.
Some people call it "steam frying."